Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Carlos, and a New Movie Sensibility

Mr. and Mrs. Buce (enjoyed) (patiently endured) (choose one) Carlos, Olivier Assayas' three-night miniseries about the free-lance troublemaker who became a sort of public face of international terrorism in the 1980s.  It's a mixed bag.  I wouldn't give it anywhere near the 94% score that Carlos enjoys right now over at Rotten Tomatoes (but apparently that is the shorter, theatre, version, so maybe they are beyond compare).  But it certainly has its virtues.  It's ambitious in scope--the budget for location shots must have come across as humongous enough to snap your suspenders.  There is lots of patient attention to detail.  Perhaps surprisingly for a film featuring so much killing and mayhem, it succeeds in presenting itself as restrained without seeming prim--there is a lot more violence porn in almost any episode of The Sopranos.  

So I'd go so far as to say that Assayas really has tried to let the story tell itself, bur this kind of restraint becomes a problem in its own right.  That is: even after five-plus hours, you really don't feel you know much about Carlos except that he is a clumsy risk-taker with a more than ordinary appetite for violence.  We're told almost nothing about his pre-movement past.  That's a blessing, in that we are spared the sight of (say) a youthful innocent Carlos suffering injustice at the hands of a sadistic ninth-grade geometry teacher in an encounter that vaults the child straight off to a campaign for world domination.  But we also get none but the sketchiest mention of the fact that his nonfiction father was (is?) a more-than-prosperous lawyer and self-styled Marxist who deliberately named his children after revolutionary icons (By the way, would this movement past explain why the young Carlos can take his date to a five-star restaurant?  Or was that bit just  a concession to the market for entertainment?).  When--abruptly, at the beginning of the series--the young Carlos shows up and confers himself on some Palestinian insurgents,you get the sense that they are just as puzzled as we are.

I suppose you might say that this was Assayas' grand plan: precisely to let us wonder what the Hell Carlos was up to and to come to see--slowly and over time, just as his sponsors did--that he was just a thrill-seeker and not a very effective on at that.  In the end, just lucky.  Or at least until he wasn't lucky any more at which point his handlers sold him to the French (he has languished in a French jail on one conviction since 1994, and is on trial for another outrage right now, today).

My God, as Peggy Lee would say "is that all there is?"  Unless Assayas is a far less accomplished film-maker than I surmise, the answer is "yes." No grand subtext, no manifesto, just a boy and his AK-47, an AK-47 and his boy.  If that leaves the viewer feeling perplexed and bewildered, imagine how it must have felt to some of his co-conspirators, not least his number one girl, the mother of his child--she who thought she was joining the campaign to redress injustice and wound up getting screwed on a countertop.   Carlos, then, was never the Nicolae Carpathia.  He's just a lunkhead  who liked to flash his equipment around.

Shifting gears a bit--we broke out our long evengs of Carlos with a viewing of Zen, the detective series out of the Michael Dibden novels, launched and then throttled by the BBC.  It's an amiable entertainment with the usual cop-mystery gimmicks plus a lot of Rome location shots, and who cannot love Rome location shots?   So, what does it all have to do with Carlos?  In a word, deracination.  Both shows, though in different ways, develop a certain aesthetic of rootlessness that reminds the viewer that he is living in a new and different world.

 Grant that Carlos comes by its rootlessness honestly.  Carlos himself is Venezuelan by birth.  Assayas of course is French, but we hear also plenty of Arabic, German, Hungarian, heaven knows what else.  Which is exactly how Carlos lived his life, at least until they locked him up.  In Zen, it's rootlessness of a different sort. You could call  this an "Italian" mystery but in so many ways it is about as Italian as Marmite pizza.  Almost everything about the structure is exported from a thousand BBC ancestors: Aurelio Zen clearly shares DNA with Inspector Morse and Miss Marple.  But more obviously, it's the cast: they're almost all British and they're isn't the slightest suggestion that they are anything else.  Hey, this is not a docudrama: this is Roman holiday.

I gather this is at least the second time the BBC has done this kind of thing.  Mrs. B watched (I did not) a bit of Kennth Branagh strutting his stuff s Henning Mankell's Inspector Wallander.  Now, that one really does sound like Marmite pizza.   With herring. 

1 comment:

Ken Houghton said...

Sounds as if I'll be sticking with the Bruce Willis/Richard Gere version, with the nice Jack Black cameo from before he was JACK BLACK.